Measuring our time on the trail

We are all quants now. Like the Wall Street analysts, we quantify everything that has a number associated with it. We can track our steps, our total distance covered, our sleep, our heart rate. We can track our pace or our speed. We can track our rise and fall in elevation, our calories burned, our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly accumulated mileage, or, switch to kilometers to really up the numbers. We can get the information on a gps watch, a black bracelet, a fancy watch, a smart phone or tablet or delay the gratification and wait to get back home to check out the stats on a desktop. Now with wearable technology, even our shoes and socks can log our data.

The quantitative analysts on Wall Street can do what they do because business is described in numbers-the quarterly profit and loss numbers, the numbers of widgets manufactured, sold, not sold and sold and returned and of course the stock price and dividend. But now quantification is becoming firmly embedded even in the trail under our feet not to mention in our daily lives. The proliferation of tracking devices reduces a post hike recap from a simple ‘wow’ to a “wow, did you know we just logged 1,854 feet of elevation change” and a simple sense of exhausted exhilaration following a hard run is replaced by poring over the stats, the list of  mile by mile times and a careful evaluation of the pace. Was it better or worse than the day before, the week before or the month before. And these tracking devices now add the daily temperature and wind speed to their reports as well and even leave space to add a few comments like, “felt pretty lousy” or “sore left knee”.

I know about this because I have succumbed to this practice. Immediately  after a run I immediately check my tracking app. And I actually find the information quite useful, interesting and even actionable, especially if I have a goal in mind.

But what are we not measuring and not communicating? My running app has no happiness metric or pure joy tracker. It has no early morning dew on my shoes alarm, or sunlight shimmering on the water detector. It does not have an amazement meter that goes off when watching acrobatic swallows diving through the air or an “oh wow” tracker when I spot a cormorant surfacing in the river with a fish in its beak or spot a yellow warbler amongst the leaves.  And my running app does not tabulate how many times I started out in a so-so mood and ended up pretty happy, or, vice versa.

yellow_warbler

yellow warbler (www.lilibirds.com/gallery2/v/warblers/yellow_warbler

I submit that what we can not measure gets lost and subsumed in the massive data which we can measure. The intangibles like joy, freedom, inspiration, accomplishment, overcoming adversity and other critical elements that constitute the human soul are lost as the fleeting moments that they are and perhaps, that they are supposed to be.

We truly have no language to quantify the most valuable of our experiences and this is certainly true when out in nature, pushing our physical limits or simply enjoying the time out doors. Art and music strive to capture out deepest emotions at the most ephemeral moments of life but they can not quantify our experiences like a gps watch can track our miles, pace and elevation changes. Our time in the woods, by a lake or in a meadow, will remain what it is – a transcendent moment. And our memory of that experience with nature will leave us as it should. Speechless.

 

Howard E. Friedman

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On the Trail: Peer into the Shade

 

Shade on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills (http://www.nature-photography-in-the-rough.com/)

Shade on the Escarpment Trail in the Catskills (http://www.nature-photography-in-the-rough.com/)

Summer has begun and in the northern hemisphere that usually means hot and sunny especially if trails are above tree line. But in the northeastern United States we are lucky that miles and miles of hiking trails remain well shaded as they traverse forests under a canopy of millions of maple. birch, hickory, oak and beech leaves, among others. The shade is a balm on a hot and sunny day.

Striped Maple, an understory tree (http://njurbanforest.com/about-nj-urban-forest/)

Striped Maple, an understory tree (http://njurbanforest.com/about-nj-urban-forest/)

Running through a shady trail last week, I thought about the challenges of life in the shadows. For plant and tree life dependent on sunlight for photosynthesis, shade would seem to a be a punishment, like half rations for a prisoner, or no rations at all. Yet, the understory of forests, the part that is mostly in the shade, does teem with verdant greenery. Indeed, some trees, notably the striped maple, inhabit only the understory and do not ever breech the forest canopy. Other trees, however, are shade tolerant. That is, they can survive in the shade, for years if needed, until they have an opportunity to leave the understory and poke their tallest limbs into sunlight, perhaps after a nearby taller tree topples over, clearing a space in the forest canopy. And, many plants, even in our own gardens, flourish only in the shade.

How does life tolerate the dimness of the daytime darkness, the absence of direct sunlight, especially when that light is a currency of life for most plants and trees? There is no one answer. Instead, plants in the shade use a cornucopia of adaptations for their survival.

Think of common shade plant in many home gardens, Hostas. Notice that they have large leaves, an adaptation to collect as much sunlight as possible. In addition, the chloroplasts in the leaves of shade dwelling plants and trees are larger than in trees and plants that live in full light and their epidermal cells are better designed to maximize light. Also, shade trees and plants have no waxy layer on their leaves, something that trees in full light use to help reflect away unneeded light. And, in addition, shaded plants can change the angle of their leaves to maximize any available light during the day.

Shade is not only sunlight blocked, but rather potential not yet realized, growth untapped, waiting for opportunity. Shade tolerant plants, though, have it figured out. Do not wither during lean times. Adapt and be patient. If you find yourself struggling out on your trail, peer into the shade for inspiration, then continue on your way.

The sunlight, it is a coming.

Howard E. Friedman

 

(for more information about shade apaptations, visit : http://plantsinaction.science.uq.edu.au)

 

On the trail: A virtual backpacking trip thru Yosemite…

from Project Yosemite by Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty

from Project Yosemite by Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty

With warmer weather, thoughts turn to epic hiking and backpacking trips, many of which, unfortunately, will not materialize, at least not this season. While I do not profess that technology can replace a true outdoors experience, I would be foolish not to at least acknowledge that the increasing marvels of technology are bringing the outdoors closer and closer to our fingertips.

I would love to spend some time backpacking through Yoesmite Valley. But, it won’t happen this summer. In the meanwhile, my eyes and even my soul can feast on the magnificent time lapse video footage capturing the movements of land and sky filmed over 10 months with sophisticated equipment to create a pretty darned good simulation of sights and sound of a hike throughYosemite National Park.

Colin Delehanty and Sheldon Neill hiked 200 miles carrying 70 lbs. of camera equipment on their backs to make the following five minute outstanding video. Visit www.projectyose.com to see this video (a Vimeo editor’s choice), nourish your soul, learn more about their project and see links to others they met along the way who have also captured on film the beauty that is Yosemite National Park.

Howard E. Friedman

On the trail: Retreat and the edge effect

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center at Rt. 9 (H. Friedman)

I finally turned back.

Perhaps my plan was ill advised from the start. To run and hike in two feet of snow without the aid of snow shoes or skis. Or even boots. Just La Sportive Wildcat trail shoes and a plastic bag I had slipped over each of my feet before I put my shoes on. But I really thought the snow would have been tamped down already by other hikers with their snow shoes or cross country skis or boots.

Apparently very few people had been out and the trail was covered with thick pillowy snow, softening in the warming temperatures. But on I ran, counting on my Kahtoola Microspikes to grab the ice and hard packed snow and prevent slipping. They were no match for today’s conditions. In some cases I crashed through the top layer of hard packed snow. But in other spots I post holed, my foot slipping into a cauldron of cold. After thirty minutes I finally accepted that I was neither trail running nor hiking, but rather slowly and inefficiently slogging my way uncomfortably through a forest blanketed in snow.

It was time to retreat, that moment when hope collides with reality.

Mountaineers must deal with the quandary of retreat. If a mountaineer advances to a summit when the odds are against her, she risks her life. Yet if she retreats she will have spent thousand of dollars and weeks or months on an unsuccessful expedition. Successful climbers, however, succeed in part because they know when to advance and when to retreat.

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

photo by Jake Norton/adventure.nationalgeographic.com

American mountaineer Ed Visteurs, the first U.S. climber to ascend all of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters (and without the use of supplemental oxygen), offered realistic advice about success in mountain climbing. “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory”, he said. Each person who sets out on an adventure, be it large or small, must respect his own limits, his own edge of ability.

During my retreat I noticed that snow that had settled around the edge of the base of the trees was now melting away from those same trunks, leaving a ring of snow. And that ring forms a thin edge. The snow was disappearing gradually from around the trunks. The edge where the two had coexisted was the first spot to melt away.

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Tenafly Nature Center 2014 (H. Friedman)

Snow always begins its retreat at the edges, where it abuts a fencepost, or sidewalk or stone wall. The edge is a fragile place. Retreat for humans also occurs at the edge, the edge of ability or mental discipline. And when retreat comes, it starts with just one foot step, one step back. But that one step may be the difference between adventure and misadventure.  When you are standing on the edge, knowing whether to walk forward or back is one of life’s great challenges. But do not mistake turning back for defeat. Retreat is simply an opportunity to try another day.

Howard E. Friedman

Tenacity on the Trail

Catskill Waterfall, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), at Yale Museum of Art

Catskill Waterfall, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), at Yale Museum of Art

Humans aim to thrive.  Yet nature is oft satisfied with merely surviving. And at times, merely surviving is good enough. For example, some trees survive rooted only in a thin crevice of rock. And hikers and trail runners pushing through their day should take inspiration.

Gardeners strive to plant seeds and plants in the most fertile soil, and may even enrich the earth with compost or other fertilizer. And maple trees drop their seeds on the forest floor, rich with years of accumulated soil and decomposed leaf litter. Both gardener and maple tree aim to plant in a nutrient dense environment. Soil is the accumulation of lichens, mosses, fungi, animal and insect waste, decomposed leaves, twigs and fallen branches, a rich mix of nutrients ready to nourish the next seed that settles in its midst.

So it is shocking then to see that some trees are able to sprout from a rock without the benefit of a rich bed of soil. As the seed degrades and germinates, it must leach any and all available nourishment trapped alongside it in its rocky lair. And it must soak up precious drops of rainwater that find their way down the sides of the cold rock walls. Furthermore it must sprout with only the minimal amount of sunlight that makes its way deep into the dark crevasse.

Surprisingly, the sight of a tree emerging from a rock entombment is not so unusual in the forest. ‘Catskill Waterfall’, by Hudson River landscape painter John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), seen above hanging in the Yale Art Museum, depicts a white birch seemingly emanating from a granite block, at the far right of his painting. And even today when driving through rocky terrain, one can often see saplings and trees growing almost magically right out of the crags that line our highways.

treeinrockTo a hiker or trail runner struggling on a hike or run, seeing a sapling or even a full grown tree swaying above its rocky foundation should give encouragement: to see life that has grown and persevered in adverse conditions. True, the tree growing out from a crack in a granite boulder may not be the tallest tree in the forest, but the tree has survived, and can help propagate its species. The tree can be a home to birds’ nests and provide refuge to insects galore which can burrow under its bark. But the tallest or the biggest tree it likely will never be.

The act of survival in the outdoors plays itself out again and again. Witness any of the birds resident through the winter. On a recent winter walk I was surprised to find myself within feet of a golden crowned kinglet, feeding among fir branches. This species, weighing less than a third of an ounce, is known to be able to survive even at temperatures of -40 F. The kinglet need not thrive on the coldest winter days, merely survive, to live so it can breed again in the spring. And so it is with the song sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, bluejays and downy woodpeckers one sees foraging, relentlessly, for their day’s nourishment throughout the winter.

Survive another day.

Such a lesson, while extreme for a recreational hiker or trail runner, is nevertheless a good one. The next mile which might seem to be insurmountable need not be covered in style. Breathlessness is okay. Sore muscles are okay. Walking and stopping are okay. Even thirst, at least for a short while, is okay. Know your limits, but persevere if possible.

The life force to survive is tenacious.

Thriving, however, may have to wait for another day.

Howard E. Friedman

Winter Ghosts on the Trail

Beech tree in January

Beech tree in January

Wisps of last year linger even at the end of January. Almost all leaves dropped off  their branches months ago but the beech tree clings to last season. Even as it stands in a carpet of snow, its leaves rustle in a wind, one of the few sounds in the forest now. Though the leaves have lost their green color and are now only a ghost of their former selves, they summon up the images of the new leaves that will replace them and the millions of leaves that will appear on the trees that now stand bare in the dry winter air.

Needle bearing trees, pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks are covered in green year around, though even they lose needles from time to time. But they do not lose them all at once. And maples and birch trees lose their leaves in a continuous rain of colorful but dead and dying leaves in late autumn. Yet some beech trees hold on to their leaves throughout the winter in a process botanists call ‘marcescence’, a trait shared with oak trees. The tan wispy leaves that last throughout the winter  no longer participate in photosynthesis. Yet some scientists have postulated that these marcescent leaves serve to protect the new yet-to-bud leaves. And some have suggested that oaks and beeches are an intermediate type of tree on the evolutionary spectrum; occupying a space between the coniferous trees and the maples and birches. (Losing leaves in the fall can be a help to trees by limiting water loss and limit damage from severe cold, while holding on to needles year round may maximize photosynthesis).

Running through the snow-covered trails at Flat Rock Brook park in New Jersey, the leaves on the beech tree seemed incongruous viewed against a snow-filled backdrop. A leaf, after all, represents growth and fertility and hope and springtime. Yet the snow cover bespeaks a winter dormancy, a time of inactivity for forests and gardens. But seeing the ground covered with snow does not mean we cannot see what it hides.

My route took me over a brook crossing, one I had done many times before, rock hopping my way across. I knew the rocks were there but they were under a pile of snow and some hidden in thin ice. I looked down, but saw only mounds of snow and despite the snow cover, intuited my path.

Beech leaves have finally fallen.

Beech leaves have finally fallen.

Yet staring at the translucent leaves both on the trees and the ones that finally succumbed to their fate, I saw re-birth. Springtime. Looking at the snow covered trail and the snow on the ground to my right and left I saw, or at least wanted to see, spring wildflowers and grasses, buds on trees and nesting birds. I did see those things I think.

What can we see when we can’t see the real thing?

Educators, psychologists and others have written about the effects of watching television on developing minds.  What happens when everything is revealed? Do we dull our imagination? The advertising industry has certainly settled on ‘selling the sizzle and not the steak’. Leave something to the imagination.

And many researchers have written about our ability to imagine and fill in the visual gaps when we read. I did not find a study comparing our brain function while watching versus our brain activity when reading. But in ‘Your Brain on Fiction‘, a 2012 article in the New York Times, writer Anne Murphy Paul cites findings of neuroscientists who used MRIs to evaluate brain activity in people while they were  reading.The research shows that the written word on the page stimulates even non verbal areas of our brain. A word like “cinnamon” stimulates the olfactory portion of our brains. Fiction, it turns out, is good for our brains.

And last Sunday, running through the snow seeing ghost leaves dangling on the tree and no Joe Pye weed where it is supposed to grow, I would add: experiencing the naked forest in winter has the power to stimulate the springtime portion of our brains even while we enjoy the winter landscape.

0126141223

Springtime in the Winter, But No Promises

springshootsonwinterdayI passed right by them while crossing through a lightly wooded park on New Year’s day. The ground was frozen, the average temperature 28 F. Last spring’s fallen leaves still covered much of the hard earth, a threadbare blanket at best. And so it took me a moment to realize what I had just seen on this day early in Winter: Hundreds of green shoots jutting just above the cold dirt and thin layer of brittle dry leaves. They spread over an area almost a dozen feet in length

What were these nascent early risers?  Too early for me to tell, but this patch presaged a patch of robust wild plants. I doubled back when the incongruity of springtime growth on the first of January  dawned upon me. Bent over to get a closer look I thought about how nice this area would look in a few months time covered with dense vegetation.shootsandleaves

Earlier in the day I had visited a patient in a nursing home, a woman confined to bed, unable to walk due to advanced multiple sclerosis. Her room was nice enough with pictures of her family, holiday cards hanging and she was cheerful, happy to greet a new visitor. She had walked, like me, but not for more than two decades, yet she still smiled and offered warmth to a stranger.

Her ability to warmly embrace the moment regardless of her own physical limitations reminded me of another person I once visited in the hospital, a father who became a paraplegic after a car accident. Without the use of his arm or legs he cherished any function he could still perform on his own, such as breathing. A devout and learned man, he quoted to me, actually admonished me, with an interpretation of a sentence from the Book of Psalms: For every breath, I praise God.

Cherish what you perceive as inconsequential.

As I looked at the shoots I started to question my own assumptions, that saplings always grow into strapping trees, that young shoots always grow into verdant plants, that life follows an upward trajectory. Perhaps these unlucky shoots poked out too early and well, that’s it for them.  Their moment in the sunlight was their first and last stand. Indeed within four days they were once again covered by snow. Will they survive until Springtime?0105141541

Breathing hard, feeling sore in my legs, I had been running past the new shoots when I first spied them and I admit, I was happy for an excuse to stop running and rest. Yet I keep wondering, when will I finally be able to run this route effortlessly, without even wanting to stop, with nary a hint of tiredness in my body? Am I not destined to improve?

My answer was in front of me.

No guarantees. No promises.

Perhaps each footstep today is its own triumph to be celebrated while on the journey toward ‘better’.  I do not preach defeatism. Indeed, “better” is the currency of mankind: farther for a hiker, faster for a runner, higher for a climber.

Rather I offer that one should learn to revel even in the seemingly mundane moments along the way. One’s ultimate goal may or may not be reached.  But either way, at least the journey itself will bring joy.

Running in the snow with Ozymandias

English: Footsteps on a bridleway My footsteps...

English: Footsteps on a bridleway My footsteps in the snow on a bridleway from Kinnersley to Earl’s Croome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I ran this morning in 3-5 inches of snow, some fresh powder, some crusted hard pack. Stretches of my route are through a wooded section parallel to a road, crosses a soccer field and baseball diamond, continues along a grassy strip bordering some railroad tracks, and heads straight through undulating terrain amongst oaks and maples on a slope ten feet above the flat asphalt track of our town park. And so, I immediately noticed my own footprints from several days earlier when I ran this same route, in the first snow of the season. There were no other footprints anywhere nearby and I rarely see anyone run along these grassy paths.

I was pleased to become reacquainted with my run of a few days before, to see an actual trace of my earlier endeavor, to know that I had indeed left a mark. But than I saw the inevitable – my yesterdays footprints were fading fast. Covered in by new snow, filling up, the sharp edges of my trail shoe tread footprint crumbling. My own footprints were going the way of the statue of Ozymandias. His statue, memorializing his life, crumbled into the sand. My footprint was also vanishing into the surrounding snow, after only a few days.

So what, really? Ozymandias lived his life. His dissolving statue was merely a testament to the folly of his hubris. My footprints on the other hand were an unintended consequence of a run through the snow. Yet seeing that my path was now marked for all to see, filled me with hubris for my effort of slogging through miles of snow; “Look on my works…”  all ye passersby.

But the disappearing footprints were a quick reminder. The mark, if any, I leave from today’s run is indeed ephemeral. The run, the hike, the long walk lives on. No memorial is needed since the feeling of well-being and sense of accomplishment last long, long after even if I am the only one who knows.

To Walk the World…

For walkers, trail runners, travelers and even armchair explorers, read about one man’s slow seven year walk retracing the route of human migration over millennia. Journalist Paul Slopek, partially funded by National Geographic, is making this journey and posting every several hundred miles with text, photos and even a short audio track of the sounds that surround him, wherever he may be, desert, town, market, or no where particular. In this article Slopek writes his first extended length article about this journey he began earlier this year, starting in Ethiopia. Now he has crossed the Red Sea and is walking north along the coast in Saudi Arabia.

Here are some of his opening thoughts in his National Geographic essay. (He can also be followed at outofedenwalk.com ):

“Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go. For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.

I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. This remains by far our greatest voyage. Not because it delivered us the planet. No. But because the early Homo sapiens who first roamed beyond the mother continent—these pioneer nomads numbered, in total, as few as a couple of hundred people—also bequeathed us the subtlest qualities we now associate with being fully human: complex language, abstract thinking, a compulsion to make art, a genius for technological innovation, and the continuum of today’s many races.”

Here is a link to the NG article:

via To Walk the World.

Keep your eyes on the trail…

Hiking trail through an oak forest - "Kno...

Hiking trail through an oak forest – “Knorreichenstieg” in Germany (Photo credit: http://www.martin-liebermann.de (zeitspuren))

I drive to work everyday. I look ahead, see I need to turn right and turn the wheel to the right. A pilot makes small adjustments to the yoke to change direction as does a boat captain to the wheel. And a cyclist, of course requires, well, the bike and its handlebars for steering.

But hikers, walkers, runners – we look ahead, see the trail we want to take, and will ourselves toward our chosen direction. We look and our feet respond. A slight bend to the right, a hop across a creek, an off-trail trip up a hill through tall grass or over downed branches, roots and rocks.

No wheel or yoke or handlebars required.

Our eyes do the steering on the trail.  Eyes see. The brain generates the course corrections. The feet loyally follow directions.

Planning and navigating a route is indeed an intellectual endeavor. Following the path that lies ahead, however, is primal. It involves our core senses- the visual of course, our steering mechanism; the tactile-sensing the ground; the auditory-hearing our footfalls over leaves and twigs or the sound of splashing or crunching, say, hard-packed snow; and the aroma and taste of the outdoors. Now in the Fall the smell is of the denoument of fallen leaves, their final act before dissolving into forest floor.

Pay close attention on your next trail. Choose a route, begin the journey and your body appears to simply follow the path. But the walk ahead is never simple: It may begin with just a vision, a vision though that evolves to engage all of your senses.